Environmental Chemistry Letters

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 407–413 | Cite as

Unexpected control of soil carbon turnover by soil carbon concentration

  • Axel Don
  • Christian Rödenbeck
  • Gerd Gleixner
Original Paper


Soils are a key component of the terrestrial carbon cycle as they contain the majority of terrestrial carbon. Soil microorganisms mainly control the accumulation and loss of this carbon. However, traditional concepts of soil carbon stabilisation failed so far to account for environmental and energetic constraints of microorganisms. Here, we demonstrate for the first time that these biological limitations might have the overall control on soil carbon stability. In a long-term experiment, we incubated 13C-labelled compost with natural soils at various soil carbon concentrations. Unexpectedly, we found that soil carbon turnover decreased with lower carbon concentration. We developed a conceptual model that explained these observations. In this model, two types of particles were submitted to random walk movement in the soil profile: soil organic matter substrate and microbial decomposers. Soil carbon turnover depended only on the likelihood of a decomposer particle to meet a substrate particle; in consequence, carbon turnover decreased with lower carbon concentration, like observed in the experiment. This conceptual model was able to simulate realistic depth profiles of soil carbon and soil carbon age. Our results, which are simply based on the application of a two-step kinetic, unmystify the stability of soil carbon and suggest that observations like high carbon ages in subsoil, stability of carbon in fallows and priming of soil carbon might be simply explained by the probability to be decomposed.


Soil carbon Carbon isotopes Michaelis–Menten Soil microbiology Carbon turnover 



We would like to thank Andrea Oehns-Rittgerodt for technical help with the incubation experiment and Jens Schumacher for helping with the statistical analysis.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Axel Don
    • 1
    • 2
  • Christian Rödenbeck
    • 2
  • Gerd Gleixner
    • 2
  1. 1.Thünen-Institute of Climate-Smart AgricultureBraunschweigGermany
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for BiogeochemistryJenaGermany

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